Darden B-school rediscovers its right brain
New + Notable by Tom Robinson
The Darden School at the University of Virginia has made a steady climb to the top of many business school rankings to join the likes of Harvard and Wharton. So why is it reinventing itself now?
Jeanne Liedtka is the former director of UVA’s Batten Institute and has become a full-time instructor at the new Darden i.Lab. (More on i.Lab in a minute) “The traditional functions of management taught in business schools are still important,” she says. “But the heart of business success is innovation, creativity in creating value and making life better.”
The Batten Institute was founded 10 years ago with a $60 million gift from Frank Batten, the chairman of Landmark Communications and founder of The Weather Channel. Its mission called for the creation and dissemination of knowledge in the fields of entrepreneurship and innovation. During the early years, the Batten Institute launched the Batten Fellows program, expanded its portfolio of research projects, launched the Darden Incubator, supported the development of numerous case studies and educational materials, hosted several conferences and many guest speakers, published books and a research-based newsletter, Batten Briefings, and sponsored business plan competitions and other educational offerings for Darden students. Batten is now focusing on how entrepreneurship and innovation principles can be applied to four “fields of inquiry” namely: organic growth, emerging markets, sustainability and health care.
Yet despite the presence of the Batten Institute on campus, Darden's MBA program remained largely the same. Dr. Liedtka says Darden was doing a good job preparing its graduates for what she calls the back end of business; that is, taking a good idea, testing and implementing it, and managing a company efficiently.
But what about the front end? Can you teach innovation and creativity? Or are they gifts one has or doesn’t have?
Four years ago, Liedtka and her team began to research that notion, and came to the conclusion that it could be taught. But it would require a shift from the traditional B-school case method approach.
Thomas Jefferson would be proud
The solution came from observing developments in graphic arts and design programs and architecture schools. The group experimented, starting in an unused dining room, then later converting a dilapidated garage into a workshop to build prototypes. Confident that they could succeed on a larger scale, the Batten Institute underwrote The Innovation Lab, or “i.Lab,” that officially opened with fanfare in March 2010.
i.Lab is a learning environment rooted in multidisciplinary thinking and “informed by ethnographic, anthropological, and other methodologies commonly used in the social sciences.” Faculty can engage students around core skills essential to innovative business thinkers. i.Lab serves as a physical manifestation of “innovation-intensive design.”
Professor Liedtka says that, while the concept is sensational, the physical space seems somewhat understated. Perhaps even disappointing to visitors. Rather than the typical tiered, four-walled business-school classrooms, i.Lab is wide open, with small tables, limited furniture, blank walls and lots of whiteboards. “Everything is on wheels,” she laughs.
Emphasis is on the conversations that take place between student and professor and among students. The keynote speaker at the opening event
drove home that point. In his best-seller Whole New Mind, Dan Pink claims the era of “left brain” dominance, and the Information Age that it engendered, are giving way to a new world in which “right brain” qualities predominate.
Design, story, leadership, symphony, play and meaning
predominate. Pink says these qualities are the new business literacy, and the MFA is the new MBA.
Darden chose not to change a reworked MBA to an MFA, but to complement the de rigueur of accounting, finance, labor law and management with a team-based, collaborative search for creativity.
That makes sense at a university founded by an extraordinary man who – as a horticulturist, philosopher, politician, farmer, architect, archaeologist, paleontologist, inventor, writer and U.S. president – used both sides of his brain quite well.
TOPICS: Executive Briefing, Marketing, Teaching & Learning